Something in the Water

NEWS2San Lorenzo Valley students to try new kind of farming

While soil has replaced marine life in today’s conventional agriculture, the ancient farming practice of aquaponics may be making a comeback, and now local youth are rolling up their sleeves to learn how it’s done.

Aquaponics combines aquaculture, or fish farming, and hydroponics, or growing plants without soil. The fish swim in large tanks, the water from which is connected via piping to troughs that hold growing produce. This combination creates nutrient-filled water that feeds the plants, eliminating the need for soil. A farmer can build a sustainable system that uses the waste from fish to feed the plants. When done right, it will have zero water runoff by recycling the water back into the fish tanks.

Local engineer and educator Jon Parr will be working at San Lorenzo Valley High School to install an aquaponic system, which uses water and fish—creating a harmonious relationship between those fish and the fruits or veggies being grown a stone’s throw away.   

“I like to see their faces light up with something brand new and exciting, so grounded and basic,” says Parr of curious students.

Parr runs the consulting company Fishnet Aquaponics, and helped create Viridis Aquaponics in Watsonville.

Aquaponics could be the new frontier in a more sustainable, local kind of farming—something people can do in their own homes. Because it doesn’t require as much space as conventional farming, a simple design can be engineered in a backyard, and the harmonious cycle it creates doesn’t waste materials or resources.

SLVHS finalized a lease agreement earlier this month with SchoolGrown, a company that sets schools up with aquaponic systems, and Parr plans to break ground within the next few weeks.

Parr knows that most students won’t grow up to be agriculturalists, but he hopes they will remember the value of staying connected to their planet through farming. “Kids these days aren’t exposed to the whole concept of fishing or farming,” says Parr, who has a background in construction locally. “And they get to see how it works, and they hear the sound of tumbling water, and get to hold fish and see the plants.”   

The new program will provide opportunities to students of all backgrounds, and give them skills they can bring to the next level, says David Grant, SLVHS’ aquaculture teacher. College students will also have opportunities to come up to the school and get involved.

SLVHS is just the first of what might one day be a long list of schools using aquaponics. Right now, SchoolGrown is in contact with about 30 different locations and schools that are interested in starting their own aquaponic greenhouse.  

Balancing Bacteria

A few years ago, Parr helped build Viridis Aquaponics, a small, 400-square-foot farm in Watsonville, tucked away off Coward Road.

Today, the farm holds “a delicate balance of bacterias living in harmony,” says owner Drew Hopkins, who ultimately bought his former partner’s share of the company. Like Parr, Hopkins has a background in construction.

This system produces thousands of fruits and veggies a day, ranging from tomatoes and cucumbers to an array of leafy green lettuces. Some of Viridis’ produce can be found at A.J.’s Market in Soquel.

Hopkins has made Viridis one of the largest aquaponic farms in California. But the idea started out as a simple one, at least at first.

“The big challenge really occurred in designing the garden to feed my family,” Hopkins says. “I could not decide who was not in my family. Where do I stop? Everybody needs this and nobody is prepared for it. So let’s just go big.”  

Inside one of the greenhouses are rows upon rows of different lettuces spaced systematically, depending on size. They sit in large styrofoam rafts that float on top of shallow troughs filled with the nutrient-rich water. Large white pipes connects each trough to a series of 305-gallon barrels. Swimming in these barrels are small sunfish, goldfish and koi fish, and larger California native sturgeon and catfish. They race rapidly back and forth in their tanks like Olympian swimmers as they splash water into the air while turning around for their final lap. Someday the catfish will be large enough to sell on the market.

Hopkins lifts up the styrofoam rafts growing 18 lettuce heads and reveals their eight-inch-long root systems. The root network under a single head of lettuce grown outdoors is about the size of a Volkswagen beetle, Hopkins says, becasue the plant needs to stretch its roots so far to reach deep water tables.

“Here [the plant] gets everything it needs flowing right under it,” Hopkins says.

They are able to harvest 2,000 heads of lettuce every single day, he says, and for every head of lettuce harvested, a seedling is planted, continuing the circle of growth. The total cycle for the lettuce just takes 21 to 28 days, depending on the weather. Compare that to the average farm, which only has one harvest a year.

In a second greenhouse, Hopkins pulls back the door to reveal an organized chaos of 18,000 heirloom tomato vines, each being held up and stretched to the right, wrapped around wires connected to a pulley which adjusts to the plants’ heights. The rows of buckets with tomatoes growing horizontally, weaving around each other and growing up to 40 feet long is more than a year old.

Hopkins says it’s lamentable that many farmers harvest tomatoes only in the fall. “They’ll grow for years, in the right climate and conditions, and they will continue to grow and give you hundreds of pounds of tomatoes in its lifespan,” he says.

But when it comes to the potential for aquaponic farming, Hopkins says we’ve only scratched the water’s surface.

“We are searching for all of the best answers to farming,” Hopkins says, “and what we want to do is collect them all.”

PHOTO: Aquaponic technology allows farmers like Drew Hopkins of the Viridis farm in Watsonville to grow more produce in smaller area.  KEANA PARKER

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